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Mummies Study Reveals That Hardening Of The Arteries May Have Been A Global Problem In The Ancient World

A study of 137 mummies from four different geographical regions, spanning 4000 years of human history, has revealed that , or hardening and narrowing of the arteries – the disease that causes heart attacks and strokes – may have been much more common among ancient peoples than previously thought. The findings, published Online First in The Lancet, were presented at ACC 13, the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, held in San Francisco, USA, from 9 – 11 March 2013.

Atherosclerosis is usually considered to be a disease of modern human beings, related to contemporary risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise. However, the researchers suggest that the high prevalence of atherosclerosis in pre-modern humans may support the possibility of a more basic human predisposition to the disease.

An international group of researchers used CT scans to look for the characteristic signs of atherosclerosis – vascular calcification, or build-up of a hard calcified substance along the walls of arteries – in 137 mummies from ancient Egypt, Peru, southwest America, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Where the mummies’ arterial structure had survived, the researchers were able to attribute a definite case of atherosclerosis where they found signs of vascular calcification. In some cases, the arterial structure had not survived mummification, but the calcified plaque was still present in sites where arteries would have once been, in which case the researchers attributed a probable case of atherosclerosis.

Overall, the researchers found that over a third (47, 34%) of the mummies examined showed signs of probable or definite atherosclerosis. As with modern populations, they found that older people seemed to be more likely to show signs of the disease – where it was possible to estimate the mummies’ ages by examining their bone structure, they found that the age at time of death was positively correlated with the presence and extent of atherosclerosis.

Although previous research has uncovered atherosclerosis in a significant proportion of , this is the first study to look for the signs of arterial hardening in mummies from cultures living in disparate global regions, with different lifestyles and at different times. The findings are particularly significant because they appear to counter the proposition that the apparent prevalence of atherosclerosis in may be due to the fact that in ancient Egyptian society, it tended to be individuals with a high socioeconomic status who were mummified. Researchers have previously speculated that these individuals would have had a diet particularly high in saturated fat, which could have led to a higher than expected prevalence of atherosclerosis.

However, according to Professor Randall Thompson, of Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, USA, “The fact that we found similar levels of atherosclerosis in all of the different cultures we studied, all of whom had very different lifestyles and diets, suggests that atherosclerosis may have been far more common in the ancient world than previously thought. Furthermore, the mummies we studied from outside Egypt were produced naturally as a result of local climate conditions, meaning that it’s reasonable to assume that these mummies represent a reasonable cross-section of the population, rather than the specially selected elite group of people who were selected for mummification in ancient Egypt.”*

Professor Thompson adds that, “In the last century, atherosclerotic vascular disease has replaced infectious disease as the leading cause of death across the developed world. A common assumption is that the rise in levels of atherosclerosis is predominantly lifestyle-related, and that if modern humans could emulate pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural lifestyles, that atherosclerosis, or at least its clinical manifestations, would be avoided. Our findings seem to cast doubt on that assumption, and at the very least, we think they suggest that our understanding of the causes of atherosclerosis is incomplete, and that it might be somehow inherent to the process of human ageing.”*

* Quote direct from author and cannot be found in text of Article


“Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations”,
Prof Randall C Thompson et al.
The Lancet – 11 March 2013, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60598-X